The state Senate passed a bill last year to prevent discrimination against Section 8 renters, but the bill died in the House. Sen. Karl Rhoads said he plans to re-introduce the bill this year during the legislative session that begins on Jan. 20.
Gavin Thornton, head of the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice which advocates on behalf of low-income people, said Rhoads’ bill will be a priority this year for his organization.
When the pandemic hit and the state boosted its rental subsidies, “it would have been tremendously helpful to have a source of income discrimination law that didn’t allow landlords to opt out of participating,” he said.
Affected people who are making less than 100% of Area Median Income (for a family of four, from $83,300 on the Big Island to $125,900 on Oahu) can apply for help, and if their application is approved the State will pay their landlords or lenders directly.
There is, however, a small catch. Some landlords are refusing the money. Which makes one wonder about what is going to happen to the tenant once the State’s moratorium on evictions expires at the end of the year.
Why are they refusing the money? In a Honolulu Star-Advertiser article, Gavin Thornton, the executive director of the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice and a member of the House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness, said:
[S]ome of the landlords are unwilling to participate in the program, unwilling to sign off to receive the payments — allegedly because they don’t have their GE [general excise tax] licenses. They’re not paying their taxes on that rental income. So that’s potentially a problem that could prevent tenants who otherwise are eligible for the program, not receiving those funds that they really need. So we’re hoping very much that those tenants somehow, some way, will ultimately be able to access those resources.
Governor David Ige’s current plan to furlough state workers starting next month could further increase the already-maddening lengths of time it takes to process critical services like unemployment.
Only specific bargaining units are exempt from the furloughs, like law enforcement and health care workers. Not exempt from the two unpaid days off per month are those employees assisting the unemployed and uninsured.
The shutdown has left tens of thousands people across the state out of work, and an overwhelmed Labor Department is still struggling to catch up on a backlog of benefit claims.
Some island landlords have rejected about $8 million in direct payments to cover the rents they’re owed because they do not have general excise tax licenses and are not paying taxes on their rental income.
Where that leaves renters who have qualified and been approved to have their back rent covered through the state’s Rent Relief & Housing Assistance Program is unclear once the current ban on evictions is scheduled to expire at the end of the year.
“We don’t know what happens in January,” said Kent Miyasaki, spokesman for the state Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corp.
Housing is a real concern in a state where there’s an affordable housing crisis, said Nicole Woo, a policy analyst for Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice.
She worries that if their presence remains beyond the pandemic and if they come in larger numbers, they could start pushing property values even higher.
City and state officials say housing is the answer to homelessness. But criminalization can be more politically expedient.
In Honolulu, being homeless is already a crime in many ways.
It’s illegal to sit or lie down in Waikiki and parts of 17 other neighborhoods. It is also against the law to obstruct a public sidewalk or store belongings on public property. And that’s not even taking into account anti-vagrancy laws at the state level.
Speaking during a question-and-answer session sponsored by the Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, Schatz also said prospects are slim that Congress will pass another COVID-19 relief bill before Nov. 3.
Schatz said the Republican-controlled Senate works on one thing at a time and is focused on confirming President Trump’s nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, Amy Coney Barrett. So pandemic aid is doubtful anytime soon.
“The very high likelihood is that it’s going to have to wait until after the election. And that is deeply unfortunate,” he said.